Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge: First Impressions

Friday, November 1, 2013. Having familiarized ourselves with the layout of Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge via Google Maps, we easily found the correct turnoff that lead to where the volunteer RV pads were located. In no time at all we were backed into and parked at what would be our “home” for the next five months.
We were immediately greeted by Dennis and Theda Farmer from Vermont, who had arrived the day before. They were one of the other two volunteer couples we would be getting to know. Not long after, Lance Koch, the refuge manager, stopped over to welcome us and set up a time for the following Monday to begin our refuge orientation and review our responsibilities.

LWNRW Admin/Visitor Center building and our site
Our site, the use of which we received in return for our volunteer work, had water, 50amp electric, and sewer. Just a short walk back up the service entrance road was the former visitor center structure where a clothes washer and dryer, expressly for volunteer use, were located. This pleased Carol to no end (no having to dig for quarters for quite some time).
We had extensively researched the refuge online so we already had a pretty good sense of what to expect as far as the physical layout. However, there’s nothing like seeing a place in person so over the weekend we spent a little time familiarizing ourselves with our immediate area.

area map
The nearest large town (i.e., Target, Kohl’s, etc.) was Daytona Beach, some 25 miles to the east. The closest town to the refuge proper was De Leon Springs, population 2,358. Not a very large spot on the map but for our purposes, it had a post office and hardware store. The latter provided a good source for refilling our propane tanks.
About a 20-minute drive was the city of DeLand, population 27,031. It was also the county seat for Volusia County. DeLand had local supermarket options (Publix was the best), and Stetson University, Florida’s oldest college. The latter was no doubt responsible for a decent selection of local eateries.  DeLand’s downtown had an attractive historic district which hosted several annual festivals of various stripes throughout the year. Of note was the DeLand Mural Walk, an impressive collection of several large and small murals which offered a visual time capsule depicting the city’s history.

just one of the many murals in DeLand
In 2004, Lake Woodruff NWR was “complexed” (a polite way of imposing staff and budget cuts) with Merritt Island NWR. Complexing is an administrative grouping of two or more refuges, wildlife management areas, or other refuge conservation areas that are primarily managed from a central office location.  Refuges are grouped into a complex structure because they occur in a similar ecological region, such as a watershed or specific habitat type, and have a related purpose and management needs.  Typically, a project leader or complex manager oversees the general management of all refuges within the complex and on site refuge managers are responsible for operations at specific refuges. Supporting staff, composed of administrative, law enforcement, biological, fire, and maintenance professionals, are centrally located (i.e., shared) and support all refuges within the complex. Along with Lake Woodruff NWR, Lake Wales NWR, Pelican Island NWR, and St. Johns NWR were grouped under the Merritt Island umbrella.
A small but incredibly dedicated staff (a refuge manager, a fire specialist and a heavy equipment operator) kept LWNWR humming along. But thank goodness for seasonal volunteers, eh?

Spring Garden Lake/Pool 1 trail looking out across Pool 1
The refuge, at 22,574 acres, is medium-sized for a National Wildlife Refuge. But as they say, good things come in small (even medium-sized) packages.
The following Monday was spent learning more about the refuge property via two driving tours followed by a conversation with Lance who outlined what would be expected of us for our minimum 16 hours per week time commitment. Fortunately, we were able to work our 16 hours in tandem which, theoretically at least, freed us up with four days in a row of downtime.

levee trail dividing Pools 2 (left) and 3 (right); looking over Pool 3
The first driving tour was with Wesley (“Wes”) Allie, the engineering heavy equipment manager, who also conducted local hunter safety courses. During our drive around the three impoundment areas, we learned that Wes was a two tour veteran of the Iraq War so he and Tom had a good deal to discuss abut their respective military experiences.

Road entering the impoundment area
The entrance to the impoundment area was reached by driving about a mile down Mudd Lake Road. The gated entrance (a gate controlled by an automated timer) opened at sunrise and closed at sunset. Two parking areas were available. The general public was welcome to explore most of the impoundment area but only on foot or bicycle.
Unauthorized vehicles were prohibited from driving on the impoundment dikes. And while we were authorized to drive refuge vehicles, we too were discouraged from routinely driving the dikes in order to minimize wear and tear on the ground cover.

East Tract (top); Volusia Tract (below)
For our second driving tour, Lance took us through the East Tract and the Volusia Tract (aka, the Tomoka Wildlife Management Area Volusia Recharge Tract). The latter, located about five miles from the refuge's admin building, was a jointly managed tract of land (state and Feds) but with overall management authority by U.S. Fish and Wildlife. At the end of the day we had our tours, keys, shirts, refuge hats, a three-ring binder volunteer handbook to review, and a much better sense of the refuge’s layout. 22,574 acres might be small to some but to us, it was huge.
It didn’t take us long to setup some bird feeders and a water drip next to our RV which immediately started to attract birds. The down side was that we would have to take the feeders down each night due to raccoons and black bear.
We quickly fell into our work routine. We covered the opening, closing and staffing of the visitor center on Sundays and Mondays. The other volunteer couple on site, Dennis and Theda, staffed the visitor center on Fridays and Saturdays. The third couple, not due to arrive until just after the 1st of December, would cover two of the remaining three days. In the meantime, we and the Farmers would perform extended coverage of the visitor center as needed.

a few of our Saturday morning bird hike participants
One of the first changes we suggested and implemented was moving the once a month bird hike from Wednesday mornings to a weekly Saturday morning schedule, thus making it an event to allow for working family participation. A volunteer from the local Audubon chapter who had been leading the monthly Wednesday field trips gladly relinquished field trip responsibilities with an offer to fill in if needed. It meant extra hours on our part but we were passionate about promoting the refuge through guided bird hikes. A flyer was quickly designed, printed and distributed.

Part of the visitor center space was devoted to a gift store which in theory was operated by the Friends of Lake Woodruff. Technically, the refuge volunteers worked for the refuge and not the Friends group. But the reality was, that the refuge volunteers happened to be the one’s on site when anyone expressed an interest to buy a gift item.
Friends groups are an important component to any park or refuge. Among other things, they generate additional revenue for special projects beyond a refuge’s operating budget. Friends groups also act as advocates for the refuge when it comes to lobbying and building community involvement and support. Unfortunately, this Friends group had fallen under poor leadership and was also in non-compliance as far as the group’s charter. During the first few months of our refuge stay, the Friends group was disbanded and the store emptied out.

Gail and Carol strategizing in the volunteers office
Serendipitously, Gail Palmer had arrived in central Florida to escape the winter in the northeast U.S. She had been initially recruited to manage the Friend’s store. Her efforts to establish a business plan for the store on behalf of the Friends group rapidly morphed into her becoming the seventh 2013 -14 seasonal refuge volunteer. With a background in business and journalism, she quickly assumed the role of aggressively promoting the refuge through local media outlets and community organizations. Gail was also instrumental in helping revise the refuge’s official brochure. She wound up covering the visitor center on most Wednesdays and Thursdays.
We had specifically been hired to work as volunteer naturalists. That’s not to say we didn’t share in other “typical” maintenance responsibilities but our primary focus was on dealing with the public and raising the public’s awareness of the refuge. Early on, Tom was granted admin access to the refuge’s Facebook page and immediately began posting photos and videos he had started capturing during walks on the refuge. At one point, the social media hits became so significant that Sallie Gentry, the Regional Visitor Center Specialist and Education Volunteer Coordinator (from the Atlanta regional office) inquired as to how the refuge was able to garner such massive and positive spikes of "likes" and "follows" on Facebook. “What are you guys doing and is this something other refuges could or should be doing?”

visitor center display area, complete with mounted alligator
We quickly became the "bird people" since we both spent a good deal of time hiking the impoundment and recording our sightings on eBird. A grease board was started in the visitor center displaying the names of bird species tallied during our weekly bird hikes. The board was refreshed each month and not only became a popular tool for visiting bird watchers but served as an invaluable reference for the other non-birder volunteers.
Tom revised the refuge’s bird checklist to reflect current ABA taxonomy. Printing cost of the checklist was underwritten by the West Volusia Audubon Chapter which had assumed the role of "refuge custodians" following the demise of the Friends of Lake Woodruff group.
As for explaining the refuge’s habitat makeup, we are going to defer to a web page constructed by Peter May, a member of the Biology Department, Stetson University. No sense reinventing a wheel that had already been so well constructed. Peter also writes an excellent blog titled “Volusia Naturalist” which is updated regularly.

refuge map
Looking at the map of the refuge, two things should be readily apparent. One, there are several miles of hiking/biking trails. And two, the large body of water that visitors encounter is NOT Lake Woodruff. The only access to Lake Woodruff proper is by boat (mainly along Spring Garden Run) or by way of a very long and arduous slog. Given that Lake Woodruff NWR has the highest number of alligators per shoreline acre, the latter access choice is not one a rational person would make.
Spring Garden Lake is most easily seen and accessed along the east edge of Pool 1. And it was the 1.5 mile trail around Pool 1 where the greatest diversity of bird species were routinely observed, and, where the majority of our bird hikes took place. The second most productive area was the combined Pontoon Landing Trail through Jones Island and the 2.5 mile trail around Pool 2 (also through part of Jones Island) and bordered the north side of Pool 3. Finally, there was a third, shorter trail option not clearly denoted on the map that ran from the Myaca Parking Lot (the first parking lot encountered as one drove toward the impoundment area) and intersected with the southeast corner of Pool 1. These were the areas where we spent most of our time monitoring birds.
Located directly across from the Myacca Parking Lot, was a gated, gravel road. The road stretched for about three miles into the East Tract and was good for finding gopher tortoises. Again, hiking and biking only by the general public (but where we were allowed to drive a refuge vehicle through it as needed).

Gopher Tortoise; Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake
All the trails were level and easily traversed. With luck one might encounter another of the refuge’s common inhabitants: the Dusky Pygmy Rattlesnake. A very small snake but venomous…which is why we discouraged hikers from wearing open-toed footwear.
As we became more familiar with more sections of the refuge, the easier it became to direct visitors to areas they might be most interested in finding specific species of wildlife. Like the Pileated Woodpecker and Bald Eagle nests along the Myacca Trail.

Pileated Woodpecker and Bald Eagle
It was gratifying to find so many families with young children hiking or biking the trails. Even several of the people who came to the refuge to “just fish” were easily engaged in conversation about various observations of wildlife they may have witnessed. Like their seeing an otter, bobcat, Bald Eagle (there were two active nests within view), or the occasional black bear.
Wes and Stan checking wood duck boxes
During our first month Tom was invited to accompany Wes Allie and Stan Howarter, a field biologist from Merritt Island, to check wood duck boxes scattered across the refuge. They spent almost an entire day afloat checking the status of several boxes. This was one of the few opportunities either of us had to get out and explore a good section of the refuge by boat. Given how much access to the refuge was dependent on watercraft, we wished we had our own kayaks. Well, at least until Carol saw just how large some of the alligators got to be.


  1. Lovely post about a lovely place, Carol and Tom. I wish we had spent more time together while you were here. Thanks for the link to my blog. For anyone interested, here's a link to my Woodruff website, which is looking pretty dated these days, but still mostly accurate and I hope useful:

  2. Peter, thanks for the link to your web site. We too wished we had been able to spend more time with you while were in the area. So very much appreciated your input on the bird data and your thrilling blog entries which spurred us on to visit some of the places you mentioned!

  3. Nice post. always love your pics. Did Sally Gentry ever work as a teacher in STL?

  4. Great post, Tom and Carol! We miss you already. -Kevin and Alicia

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  6. Hi Tom and Carol,
    I enjoyed reading your blog and am proud to be in the birding pictures. I still go over to the Refuge, sometimes seeing Wes and Jerry. Not so many birds plus much more vegetation has put a damper on what you can see, plus being in Florida it is hot and buggy walking around. Looking forward to the fall when the birds all return.

    Hope you are both doing well. Miss having all your knowledge at hand. Glad the Refuge still posts your pictures on FB too.
    Happy Birding!